Mayor Stresses Affordable Housing Efforts

The Herald Times
July 28, 2019

Guest Column from Mayor John Hamilton:

National lists of “best places to live” regularly include Bloomington. For retirees, those raising a family, or starting a business, our community is widely touted. It’s one reason every year we grow by about 1,000 people from all walks and stages of life.

But far too many folks struggle to afford to live here. In Indiana’s most expensive housing market, we need more options for our residents.

Since January 2016, our administration has worked diligently and creatively to expand those housing options. In the face of long-term declining state and federal support for housing, we’ve tried a wide range of approaches.

One new approach is the Housing Development Fund, established with the city council in 2016. The Fund accepts non-tax contributions to support all kinds of new or rehabbed housing. It was activated with legacy funds from the Community Foundation of Bloomington and Monroe County, and a significant contribution from a private developer who sought to double the density originally allowed for a new student apartment building.

What has the $1.5 million in the fund accomplished thus far? The bottom line: New or preserved units of more affordable housing are in place or under construction for 130 Bloomington families. Projects include affordable downtown residences with Bloomington Cooperative Living, new affordable apartments at Switchyard Park, and new northside family units.

The fund continues to accept contributions from various sources, including from investor/developers who partner with the city to expand affordable housing options for our workers families and retirees. Expenditures from the fund are appropriated by the city council through the regular, public budget process.

Some have criticized this tool for expanding housing options as “pay to play” — suggesting something untoward in incentivizing developers and builders of market rate housing to help meet our community’s important goal of more housing, more affordable for all.

In fact, Bloomington and communities around the country have done this for generations — though not always focused on affordable housing. For years, developers and builders in Bloomington have been incentivized (or required) to produce community benefit as they invest in new buildings. That’s how we’ve increased sidewalks, green spaces and urban trees. It’s why we enjoy building setbacks, and design standards, and quality materials. It’s supported first floor retail, adequate parking spaces, and sustainable buildings. These community benefits and more exist because the city either required them through zoning or incentivized them through benefits like density, height, or use variances.

Our administration has intentionally and explicitly added affordable housing to those community benefits that are done in concert with private investments in our city. Our comprehensive plan encourages this. And I believe it’s essential that we do so. Barred by the state from adding housing options through inclusionary zoning, direct taxation, or rent control, we have to be creative and intentional in partnering to help more people afford to live in Bloomington.

The proposed new zoning code will allow some developments to go taller or denser than they otherwise would, if they include more affordable options for more of our residents. That’s a fair exchange, and developers can choose either to build such units directly, or to contribute money to the Fund to allow others to access the money for more affordable units.

If you have ideas for how to create more affordable units in town, contact our office — maybe the Fund can help!